Excitement generated by the finding of a horse skeleton in Utah thought to date from the late ice age was misplaced according to a new study.
The pony sized skeleton was discovered in Lehi, north central Utah in 2018. It was first thought to have lived about 16,000 years ago as it was found lying amongst geological deposits from the last ice age.
Now further work using radio-carbon dating has shown that the remains are in fact a lot younger - dating from about 300 years ago.
However, the disappointment of discovering that the horse was not an ice age relic was tempered by the insights it revealed into the place of horses in native American life. The work is reported in the journal American Antiquity.
William Taylor, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder, was sceptical that this was an ice age fossil. Although ancient horses were common in north America during the Pleistocene, they went extinct around the same time as other larger mammals such as mammoths.
His suspicions were raised by the presence of fractures of the vertebrae – injuries not commonly found in wild horses, but typical in those having been ridden without a frame saddle.
The horse also had evidence of severe arthritic changes in several limbs.
Dental examination revealed that the horse was about 12 years old when it died. Radiocarbon dating showed that it lived up to about 300 years ago.
DNA analysis revealed that the horse was female. This, in combination with the signs of arthritic damage, suggested that the horse was being kept alive for breeding purposes after she had outlived her use for transport.
Analysis of sequential samples of tooth enamel for carbon, oxygen, and strontium isotopes led the research team to deduce that the horse was raised and tended within the region where it was found.
Taylor, lead author of the study, suggests that the horse likely died sometime after 1680, before European settlers moved into the Salt Lake region during the mid-19th century.
For more details, see:
Interdisciplinary Analysis of the Lehi Horse: Implications for Early Historic Horse Cultures of the North American West.
Taylor, W., Hart, I., Jones, E., Brenner-Coltrain, J., Thompson Jobe, J., Britt, B., . . . Roberts, P.
To see Dr Taylor's exhibit "Horses in the North American West", part of the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, go to: